“Lawless” is a triumph of tone and setting, the gritty underworld of prohibition-era Virginia examined with meticulous and sometimes painful detail. This is plainly visible not just in the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the diction, and the rural locations, but also in its depiction of violence, which could arguably put it on the same shelf as the works of Peckinpah, Coppola, Penn, and Scorsese. Director John Hillcoat does not spare the audience the sight of blood or brutality, and although I never lived during that particular time or place, this seems like the most appropriate approach. This isn’t to suggest that the violence is glorified or trivialized. There’s nothing fun or entertaining about what we see, as it typically would be for an action film or a comic book adaptation; it’s quick, merciless, and cruel, as I imagine it must have been all those years ago.
The film is adapted from “The Wettest County in the World,” a historical novel in which author Matt Bondurant drew inspiration from his own family, specifically his grandfather and two of his great-uncles. They were all actively involved in the illegal moonshine industry of Franklin County, Virginia, which continues to this day despite the fact that Prohibition has long since been repealed. “If you probe the back cupboards of nearly any house in Franklin County,” said Bondurant in an essay he wrote regarding his novel, “or check in the garage fridge back behind that bloody hunk of venison, you will likely find a half-gallon mason jar of clear liquid with some kind of cut fruit suspended in it, most often peaches.” Strange that this side of Franklin County life is considered normal and yet remains publicly unspoken of.
With all the work that went into establishing atmosphere, it’s disappointing the filmmakers didn’t try a little harder with the story or the characters. The latter are all competently cast and performed, and yet there’s the unmistakable sense that they were developed purely on preconceived notions. The three Bondurant brothers – Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) – exist in a gray zone between authentic outlaws and romanticized antiheroes. This is especially true of Forrest, whose misguided belief in his own immortality is unwisely played into by the filmmakers; he survives a number of injuries that would kill most people, including being shot several times and having his throat slit. All the brothers have their roles to play in the moonshine racket, but Forrest is clearly the ringleader, and he has both the brutal survival skills and the fatalistic dialogue to prove it.
The main antagonist is Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a special agent from Chicago who’s eager to dispense his own brand of justice in Franklin County. There’s absolutely no subtlety to this man. He wears expensive form-fitting dress suits, his hands are almost always protected by clean-looking gloves, and his greased black hair is perfectly parted down the center. His arrogance and cruelty, punctuated by relentless displays of physical aggression and repeated bouts of soft giggling, would make even the most hardened criminal blush. There’s no question that he’s deliciously evil, the kind of villain audiences love to hate. All the same, I’m forced to wonder if such a heightened character is appropriate for a story like this, which is firmly based in reality. He might have been better suited for a more stylized crime thriller, perhaps something along the lines of an adapted graphic novel.
There are two female characters, both of whom are underdeveloped, underutilized, and apparently included only out of obligation for a romantic counterpart. This is a shame given the talent bringing them to life. One is Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a former burlesque dancer from Chicago. Not much is known about her; she claims she wanted to escape the corruption of men like Rakes, and yet she willingly involves herself in the corrupt lives of the Franklin County bootleggers, specifically Forrest, who becomes her love interest. The other is Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), a preacher’s daughter who naturally takes a shine to an outlaw like Jack and teases him with tremendous relish. It’s not that he’s enticing her into an act of rebellion; it’s that she’s enticing him into enticing her. Essentially, the two are engaged in a borderline adolescent fling, one that contributes nothing of significance to the overall story.
So yes, I had reservations about the approach to character development. But considering how thoroughly the mood was established, I find that I cannot so casually dismiss this film. “Lawless” doesn’t merely transport us to another time and place, it actually immerses us. We get a sense of geography and social climate. We drink in the rustic architectural details – the rotting wood, the dingy floors, the faded walls – and the period-specific weapons and vehicles. We’re genuinely disturbed by the shocking acts of retaliation, such as the repeated use of Tommy guns and brass knuckles, or a man who gets tarred and feathered then propped up on a porch with a sign displaying the word “bootlegger.” The film doesn’t quite have a handle on a narrative, but when it comes to the technical aspects, there’s plenty to admire.